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PISA global survey: Investing in teachers and education systems helped mitigate the impact of Covid

published 7 December 2023 updated 11 December 2023
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Delayed by a year because of Covid, the OECD’s PISA is back, with a major focus on the impact of the pandemic on schools. Used as a benchmark by governments to evaluate their education systems, this latest version of PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, is the most comprehensive yet with 81 countries taking part, the majority nations outside the OECD.

Its findings are stark. It is the OECD countries, (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 38 mostly market-based high income nations) in particular, which have experienced the greatest overall declines in mathematics and reading literacy since PISA started 20 years.

In contrast PISA reports that some of the low- to middle-income countries including the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Cambodia have improved their performance over the past four years. Only a few countries, such as Singapore, Japan, Korea, Italy, and Taipei are reported not to have declined in performance.

Education International takes the PISA findings seriously, highlighting findings that support educational justice, while reserving the right to criticise the OECD’s interpretation of the data. By far the most prominent global evaluation of education systems, the basis of PISA research is its focus on equity, evaluating education systems’ ability to educate all their students successfully.

EI agrees with the OECD’s finding that ‘the unprecedented drop in mathematics and reading point to the shock effect of Covid in most countries’. What is clear is that Covid impacted severely those countries which did not invest the time and resources necessary to make their systems resilient and in making sure their teachers are well supported with the tools to do the job.

While the OECD points to other long-term reasons behind the decline in some countries, it is obvious to EI that Covid is the central factor. Indeed, both EI and the OECD itself have led the way in stressing that proper long term Covid educational recovery packages are vital if education systems were to recover from Covid; recovery packages that never materialised in many countries according to EI’s own research.

PISA’s focus on the ten actions necessary to improve education system resilience is welcome. It’s shocking to read that only four education systems had shown resilience in the three areas of learning, equity, and well-being and that no country performs well in relation to all aspects of student well-being.

Other insights are important, including how food insecurity affects close to 10 percent of students in OECD countries, the prevalence of anxiety, loneliness, and depression among students during lockdowns, and how students’ interest in working in the health sector has decreased in countries experiencing high levels of Covid deaths. Mental health problems persist among many students, post Covid, as well as a cost-of-living crisis which affects students in many countries.

Crucially, PISA reports that School Principals say the main barrier to student achievement is the shortage of qualified teachers; confirming EI’s own initial findings from its latest Global Status of Teachers survey.

Particularly, welcome therefore is the emphasis in their proposed actions on the need for sufficient highly-qualified teachers in schools and the need to establish schools as hubs for social interaction. Also welcome is the OECD’s emphasis on the need for additional support for struggling students, student well-being and removing early student selection. Also, teachers will welcome PISA’s emphasis on the importance of teachers being in control of students’ smartphone use in schools which may include banning them if they are likely to disrupt learning.

However, where EI and OECD part company is on school funding. EI can’t agree with the OECD’s statement that after USD74 thousand per pupil there is almost no relationship between extra investment and student performance.

Of course, the main message must be that countries which give education the highest political priority and spend funding wisely are more likely to have excellent education systems. But that doesn’t mean that additional targeted resources aren’t vital. They were in the case of the Covid. Indeed, the OECD’s own Education at a Glance 2023 noted that while education spending only grew in line with the trend from previous years prior to Covid, ‘other government expenditure grew rapidly to address the consequences of the epidemic.’ It’s a finding which actually underscores the importance of countries adopting long-term post Covid education recovery packages which address the effects of Covid on students’ learning and well-being.

Unfortunately, what is missing from PISA are the voices of teachers. During Covid, teachers were often on their own without external support, yet we will have to wait two years before OECD publishes its Teaching and Learning Survey to find out teachers’ views on how they could have been better supported during the pandemic and its effects on their well-being.

In fact, as the OECD itself recognised in a joint paper with EI on post-Covid recovery, teachers worked heroically during Covid, initiating a host of micro innovations that supported students. Indeed, as the OECD said at the launch of PISA, teachers are on the front line. It’s something that the OECD needs to consistently emphasise.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.